Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Guest Post: Teachers, Statistics, and Teacher Evaluation

Have I mentioned that I love guest posts? 

Priti Shah, an AAPS parent and a UM psychology professor read a version of this during public commentary at a school board meeting, and she followed her comments up as a formal letter. I liked it so much that I asked if I could post it here. The reason I asked is that I think we need to understand what good evaluation would mean, and why the system being imposed on teachers by the school district is not a good system. And by the way, if you have never spoken at public comment (or haven't recently), I encourage it!

Dear Ann Arbor School Board Members:

This letter follows up on my comments during the public comment period of the Ann Arbor School Board meeting in January 2016. I spoke about the new teacher evaluation system.

As a reminder, I’m the parent of two children in the Ann Arbor Public Schools (11th and 6th grade). I am also a Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan, and my research areas are in cognition and cognitive neuroscience and educational psychology. I base my comments on my feelings as a parent as well as based on the research evidence regarding teacher evaluations.
Priti Shah

The reason I wanted to speak was because I am very concerned about the climate of respect and collaboration teachers and administration that has been eroding in the Ann Arbor Public Schools and the impact on our children.

I start with three assumptions: 
(1) we all want the very best teachers possible,  
(2) we all want them to have the resources they need to provide the best possible educational experiences for each of our children, and 
(3) we want to be able to do all that without wasting our hard-earned resources. 

I strongly believe in setting high expectations and rewarding high quality work.  And as an educational scientist, I believe very much in high quality, research-supported teacher evaluation.  High quality evaluation should be valid (that is, someone who is rated as a “good” teacher should actually be a good teacher and someone who is rated as a “bad” teacher should actually be a bad teacher) and reliable (that is, evaluation shouldn’t change too much depending on who is in one classroom or which day the assessment occurs). Validity is a very hard nut to crack, because it depends fundamentally on one’s definition of what a good teacher is.

The new teacher evaluation system relies on two components: (1) student growth on a menu of standardized tests and (2) the Charlotte Danielson teacher evaluation system.  I would like to outline my concerns with respect to both of these approaches in terms of validity and reliability.

Student Growth

While I understand that incorporating student growth into teachers’ evaluations is mandated by state law, I want to highlight that the use of student growth—and how a teacher contributes to that growth--is problematic from a statistical perspective.  The American Statistical Association, in their policy statement on the issue, point to numerous concerns with respect to using student growth data for teacher evaluation purposes.  Most studies find that teachers account for about 1% to 14% of the variability in test scores, and that the majority of opportunities for quality improvement are found in the system-level conditions. Student growth measures are not highly reliable, in other words. 

Most studies find that teachers account for about 1% to 14% of the variability in 

test scores, and that the majority of opportunities for quality improvement are found 

in the system-level conditions. Student growth measures are not highly 

reliable, in other words.  

A good teacher may look like a bad teacher depending on the composition of students in his or her class.  A group of Ann Arbor students in AP English may not show huge growth on a standardized English test because those students are already performing at ceiling on the test; their teacher might be rated as ineffective because there was no growth.  A teacher whose students may need safety and security (and warm coats and breakfast) may do an outstanding job and yet the circumstances that they are dealing with might lead to minimal growth on a standardized test. 

Another problem with using test scores to evaluate teachers is that relevant test scores are not available for many subjects taught by teachers-- my children have taken outstanding courses in subjects for which there are no standardized tests used: engineering design; communications, media and public policy; orchestra; art.  Some of these teachers will only interact with students once a week for an hour.  Evaluating these teachers on the performance of their students in subjects that they do not teach, and students that they rarely see, is absurd.

Furthermore, there is good support for the idea that teachers change their practices in light of these high stakes evaluations, often removing activities that promote critical thinking and creativity to spend more time on tested materials.

Most importantly, growth rates for different years for the same teachers vary widely, suggesting that these measures are not very reliable indicators of teacher quality and highly influenced by exactly which random kids they are teaching. And unfortunately, students will spend increasing amounts of time, and the district increasing amounts of money on high stakes tests that assess learning to the detriment of resources spent on other activities.

The Ann Arbor Public Schools would like to focus on growth for the bottom 1/3 of students in hopes that this will be an incentive to reducing the achievement gap.  Unfortunately, having 1/3 of the data to work with will mean a massive reduction in the possible reliability of the data because of smaller sample size.  And the bottom 1/3 is a dramatically different benchmark standard across teachers (i.e., you cannot compare growth across teachers if one is using the bottom 33% of the students in AP English and another the bottom 33% of students in guitar).

The Charlotte Danielson Framework

The second proposed component of the new teacher evaluation system is the Charlotte Danielson Framework. On the surface, this is a reasonable measure that involves administrators evaluating teachers on a systematic set of 76 items that are likely to be positively associated with teacher quality. 

Again, a good measure of teaching quality an assessment requires two key features: it needs to be reliable – in that the same teacher would be rated the same across time by different people—and valid—that is, that a good score on the means someone really is a good teacher.  Unfortunately, the reliability or validity of this framework is just not clear, based on the extant evidence.  Sure, you’ll hear some relatively high numbers from the people who sell the Danielson system but they are based on expert coders watching the same lessons on video.  Consider rating a baseball player for 15 minutes during a game.  If he makes a home run that day, your two independent raters will rate him similarly. If he strikes out, the two independent raters will rate him low. It’ll look like your rating system is highly reliable. That’s how reliability of these observational methods is tested. This is just one of many problems associated with such classroom observation methods.  

I point the board to a 2012 article in Education Researcher by Harvard School of Education Professor and University of Michigan PhD Heather Hill for a more technical discussion of these and related concerns. And at the same time I appeal to your common sense: Look at the rubrics and ask yourself—have you ever had a terrible teacher who could check off all the boxes and look like an “effective” teacher because they could use the right lingo and implement the criteria superficially?  Have you ever had a stellar educator who inspired and motivated you to succeed but didn’t see eye to eye with the administrators’ views on how classroom seating could be organized? Might there be a teacher who can shine during such a formal evaluation process but shows active disdain for some students throughout the school year?

I appreciate the extreme difficulty but necessity of evaluating teacher effectiveness, but I can confidently state that just by moving from rating teacher on one subset of the criteria annually to rating them on all four will not necessarily positively impact the reliability or validity of the measure. Indeed, it is likely to reduce the quality of the ratings, the validity of the measures, while simultaneously increasing burden on teachers and administrators. Just because there are more items does not mean an assessment is better.   Neither do I think that the vast majority of highly effective experienced teachers are going to change and become less effective. At my own job, our evaluations become less frequent with greater seniority; this makes sense to me.


Given that teachers must be evaluated, and that none of the proposed methods are particularly reliable or valid, I would probably use a combination of metrics as proposed by the school board. However, I would (1) try to minimize burden on the teachers and administrators (as in, not that many hours of time), (2) involve teachers in decision making at all phases (to get input on what they think should be included and what is reasonable and won’t distract them from their real work), (3) include not just administrator evaluations but peer evaluations (that is, ratings of other teachers, who often know more about what goes on in classrooms), and (4) consider also input of parents and students.   

A proud mama moment: my son wrote an article advocating the inclusion of student ratings of teachers for the Skyline Skybox (; while I think student evaluations can be problematic in some situations, he makes an excellent point.   Student evaluations, based on specific questions regarding teaching effectiveness (not just “was this a good class” but whether the teacher seemed to care, whether students respect the teacher, and so forth) can actually be better predictors of student growth than observational methods.  And I can tell you that parents in our community are pretty well informed regarding which teachers seem engaged, caring, and effective. Parent and student surveys are cheap.


We need to start with some basic assumptions in revamping the teacher evaluation system in Ann Arbor.

My first assumption is that most of our teachers are smart, hard working, and caring professionals. I have observed far, far, more excellence in the Ann Arbor Schools classrooms on my many visits and interactions with teachers than I have experienced ineffective teaching.

Second, the Ann Arbor school system needs to maintain its leadership position regarding school administration and governance as well as quality schools.  The reason we have such outstanding teachers is that they want to work in our district.  We want to attract the very best teachers, not drive them away with unnecessary busywork.  Let’s interpret our state’s laws in a manner best suited to our teachers and students instead of jumping through hoops that may well be unnecessary.

Finally, let’s all agree that we want to expend our time and money on what helps our children learn, and that we do not want more and more of our money go to for profit testing companies, consultants to train administrators and run workshops teachers on evaluation rubrics, software so that administrators can rapidly rate teachers on numerous criteria quickly in the classroom at the press of a button.

Thanks for your time, and I’m happy to have a longer conversation with anyone who would like to talk to me.


Priti Shah

A few references:

Hill, H. C., Charalambous, C. Y., & Kraft, M. A. (2012). When rater reliability is not enough teacher observation systems and a case for the generalizability study. Educational Researcher, 41(2), 56-64.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Election Day: My High School's Polling Place

Here in Ann Arbor, we have the relatively simple and yet apparently not too likely to be tampered with paper ballots. They are easy to fill out, keep the lines moving, and there is a paper record if there ever needs to be a recount. Filling in the little circles today did kind of remind me of standardized testing, but that's not my complaint.

I went to a high school where the middle school was attached, and there was a polling place in a quiet corner of the high school. Of course (or maybe not of course--does it happen today?) visiting the polling place was definitely part of the grade 7-12 social studies curriculum.

Plus, if I would go with my parents, when I was little, to vote--there was a certain magic of going behind the private curtain (was it velvet? I think it might have been), pulling the private levers, and when you walked out of the booth, nobody knew who you were voting for.

And I know, rationally, that the system we have in Ann Arbor is much more secure than those old voting machines.

And I know, rationally, that these little booths are much easier for the clerks to move around from precinct to precinct.

And I know, rationally, that it is much easier to expand the number of booths in high volume elections.


When I was a kid, those voting booths were magical, and even today, I miss them.

By Pauljoffe at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

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Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Ask the Ann Arbor School Board to Vote No on Tuition-Based Program

I was surprised--and not happily--to see this headline from the Ann Arbor News:

Tuition-based Program Would Bring Chinese Students to Ann Arbor High Schools.

The key things to know, from the article:

A new plan* proposed to the Ann Arbor Public Schools Board of Education Wednesday evening would place up to 200 students from China in the city's high schools each year...The district is considering a partnership with BCC International Education Group, a Chinese-American company that has already created similar programs bringing Chinese high school students to Dexter and Saline.
*This idea (or something quite similar) was actually discussed, and rejected, a few years ago in the Pat Green era.

Here's the letter I just sent to the school board. You can send emails to the school board at:

Dear Board of Ed-- 

I'm writing to ask you to oppose the proposed contract with a firm to bring in up to 200 Chinese tuition-paying students. 
We already have at least two exchange programs in the schools--Youth for Understanding and AFS--both programs devoted to bringing students from around the world, including--among many other countries--China. Did you know that YFU started in Ann Arbor as an exchange program with Germany post-World War II? Or that AFS's origins lie in the aftermath of World War I with a similar goal of inter-cultural understanding?  
Ann Arbor also hosts the USA's U-18 hockey program.  
I'm not sure exactly how many students come through these three programs but I think it's something in the range of 100 students.  
All of these programs rely on host family volunteers, and it's not so easy to find them. I know intimately what is involved, because we hosted a student from Sweden last year and a student from Uruguay the year before, both with YFU. Both were great experiences but it does involve a fair bit of work, and (I know I'm repeating myself) it's not easy to find host families.  
I asked several families this year if they could take a student, and none of them felt they were in a position to do it. And, in fact, just today I got an email asking for a host family for a student who needs to leave his current family--and that happens too, sometimes, in the middle of the year. 
I do understand the desire to bring in money for the district, but I don't think this is a good way. And I would say this even if I hadn't heard, today, that the Oxford School District has had a very negative experience with this company.  
With the current exchange programs the student in my house brought in the same per-pupil funding as every other student in the district, thus adding to the district's census.  
I'm asking you to vote no on this. 
Ruth Kraut

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Sunday, February 28, 2016

Ypsilanti History: The Desegregation of Ypsilanti Schools

While it's still Black History Month I thought I would feature this interesting blog (and history of Ypsilanti schools) that I recently stumbled upon.

The information here comes from a blog about South Adams Street at the turn of the twentieth century. As the blog notes, "South Adams Street @ 1900 was created by Matthew Siegfried as a Masters project of Eastern Michigan University's Historic Preservation Program. Readers are encouraged to write with any questions or additions. Walking tours and presentations are available.
A special shout-out goes to the Ypsilanti Historical Society Archives, which provided a lot of the information Matthew Siegfried used. They welcome visitors, and I've done some research in them (particularly around Begole School). The archives have lots of great information. Find out more about them here
Today's topic is the First Ward School, and the full web site about it can be found here. [The author of the web site, Matthew Siegfried, has written about a lot more than just the First Ward School.]

The old First Ward School, on Adams Street, was built during the Civil War specifically for the purpose of educating black children. 

On September 10, 1897, the Ann Arbor Argus reported that "Ypsilanti has 1778 children of school age of which 155 are colored, a gain of three colored children and 10 white over last year."

Recorder, August 1916.
Photo by Matthew Siegfried.
Used under a Creative
Commons license.
As Siegfried characterizes it, "What began as a statement of support for black residents during the Civil War" became a symbol of segregation by the early 1900s, exclusively educating black students through sixth grade.

The school was not in good condition and things came to a head in 1916, when the black residents of Ypsilanti petitioned the prosecuting attorney, as taxpayers, for better schools. They objected to paying for the new Ypsilanti high school when their school was in such poor condition. 

The petition began:
We, the undersigned colored citizens of the city of Ypsilanti, residing in the First ward of said city, hereby petition you as an officer of the county to investigate the action of the school board of the city of Ypsilanti. We are paying a large tax for the building of a new school house. It is used for white to the exclusion of colored children. Our school, a ward school in the First ward, has no connection with the sewer, it is unsanitary and not healthful, but we are compelled, because we are colored and the board of education is white, to put up with whatever they hand us.
The school house is not sufficient or satisfactory. Do we get new? No, simply get an old discarded and poor building moved from another part of the city and placed out in the dusty street, or nearly so. It is within five feet of the street line, and thus cuts off our view down the street. Part of the time we have had undesirable teachers, part of that time poorly qualified, but we have to take it. 

Notes Siegfried, 

A bond was proposed by the [sic--but I think it was proposed by the school board and] voted down, with support of the black community, that would have rehabilitated the school while increasing the grades taught, effectively expanding segregation under the guise of aiding the school. The community was adamant; it wanted an end to segregation... Detroit attorney and NAACP leader Charles Mahoney, who later worked on the Ossian Sweet Case, led the legal challenge. The bond initiative was also opposed at the ballot box and defeated. The case was won in Judge Sample’s Circuit Court and Ypsilanti schools were formally desegregated in May, 1919. The First Ward school closed that year. 

The 1919 American School Board Journal explained things like this: 

The important question, in the court’s judgment, was whether the school was being conducted by the board for the children of negro parents of the ward In such a way as to compel the children, because they are colored, to attend the school, and at the same time to permit white children of the district to attend outside schools.The court maintained that the maintenance of the school was an act of discrimination against the colored children and that in view of the provisions of the Michigan law, it was a violation of the common law of the state and of the statutes of the state. The court cited a number of important decisions from Supreme Court cases to support its contention that all residents of a state have an equal right to attend any school and that they may not be discriminated against because of race or color.
The building is now the New Jerusalem Church.

Here are some more newspaper articles from the South Adams Street 1900 web site. 

Three additional notes:

1. Nearly one hundred years later, Ypsilanti Community Schools is a majority African-American district. Four years ago, I wrote: "It is important to remember that school segregation--though banished by law--still exists in many many schools around the nation." I wouldn't exactly call YCS a segregated district, but there are plenty of people who live in the district who send their children to schools--public, charter, or private--in other districts--and many of those families are white.

2. The First Ward School was referred to as the Adams Street School. This is not to be confused with the current Adams Elementary--which was originally named Prospect School. It was renamed in 1963 after Olive M. Adams, who was retiring from the school after being principal there for 29 years.

3. I knew about efforts to desegregate the Ann Arbor schools--in fact I've written extensively about them--but I never heard of this really significant (and successful!) lawsuit in Ypsilanti.

[And that, by the way, is in my opinion a signature of Ypsilanti--there's lots of super-interesting history, stores, museums, and parks in Ypsi--and unless you look closely, you might miss them.] For instance, do you know where this statue of  Harriet Tubman can be found? 
Sculpture by Jane DeDecker,
photograph by Dwight Burdette
[CC BY 3.0 (],
via Wikimedia Commons

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Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Understanding the Impact of the Governor's Budget Proposal on Michigan Schools

Michigan Parents for Schools has a detailed summary of the Governor's budget proposal and its impact on Michigan schools.

I'm including a few excerpts here, and then you should really read the whole thing. With these state proposals, the devil is n the details.

Per-pupil funding underlines the distribution of school funds. 

The governor's executive budget recommendation is headlined by a modest increase in per-pupil funding. Districts at the current minimum level of $7,391 - which includes some 60% of all students - would receive $120 more per pupil for their general operating needs. Districts at or above the state maximum (currently $778 higher or $8,169) would get an increase of $60 per pupil.
Districts at the current minimum level of funding: think Manchester and Whitmore Lake.
Districts at or above the state maximum: think Ann Arbor.

Compare this to the year my daughter was born (which is also the year Proposal A started): 

Put another way, the small number of districts which were at the bare minimum spending level when Proposal A took effect in 1994 are still doing better than when they started, adjusted for inflation, but they have not recovered the levels they saw in 2010-11. Districts which started out at the "basic" level of funding ($5,000 in 1994) have lost some ground and are below where they started in 1994, adjusting for inflation, wiping out the gains from the first decade of this century. Districts at the higher end have done even worse: if they received what was the state maximum in 1994 ($6,500), they have lost ground against inflation nearly every year since then and the draft budget would let them buy about 17% less now than they were able to 22 years ago. (Emphasis added. Yes, that describes Ann Arbor.)
Retirement funding significantly affects school district resources.

Costs of the state-run school employee retirement system (MPSERS) continue to have a major impact on the budget. Unfortunately, unlike some other states, Michigan does not cover these costs from other funding sources, but instead uses money from the school aid budget. The cost of funding the retirement system has risen astronomically in recent years, and not because benefits are getting richer. As districts shed teachers and other staff in downsizing, and as more services are privatized, there are fewer employees paying into the system while the number of retirees is growing. . . As a result, contributions equal to about 36% of payroll have to be made by the state and school district employers (employees also make their own contributions). Ten years ago, this rate stood at a little over 16%.  (Emphasis added.)
Who was RIchard Headlee and why should you care?
Image used under a Creative Commons license
and taken from here.

Read the rest here. There is much more.

A lot of people think this stuff is a bit boring. And complicated.

Even if you are one of those people, you should know that it's essential for us to wrap our heads around 20j, the Headlee Amendment, plans for Detroit and Flint schools (among others), funding for charter schools, and how funding for higher education interacts with the School Aid Fund.

They are our schools--but only if we claim them.

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Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Inspirer Speaks: Washtenaw's National African American Parent Involvement Day 2016

National African American Parent Involvement Day is Monday, February 8th. 
Most local schools are doing something. 

Joe Dulin
The email I got from Community High has coffee and bagels in the morning, an invitation to stop in to any of your children's classes, as well as afternoon activities. It is open to all parents who are interested in getting a better sense of their children in school--not just African American parents. Obviously the details vary by school, but I think it's important to note that the opportunity is there for you to visit your child's school and classes. [You know "Take Your Child to Work Day?" This is the opposite! "Take Your Parent to School!"]

Joe Dulin, who died in 2014, was an Ann Arbor educator and the principal at Roberto Clemente school. He was also the originator of NAAPID.

Noted Dulin, in an undated article,

Ayinde Jean-Baptiste
NAAPID is not just for black people –– it’s for all people,” Dulin says. “It comes during Black History Month, and I thought it was a tremendous time to introduce it as a project for parents to get into our schools to exchange notes, phone numbers, emails, have conversations and get in touch with the teachers.”
Dulin was inspired to create a parent involvement day after going to the Million Man March in 1995. “A young man named Ayinde Jean-Baptiste, then 12 years old, was one of the speakers, and he challenged us to go back to our communities and do something,” Dulin says. “I got the feeling that, out of a million men, he was looking at me.” When he returned home, he gathered up some friends and family and NAAPID was born.

Now the reason I find this so interesting is that the email from Community High notes that there will be a:

Community-wide NAAPID event, "NAAPID at Night," in the Ypsilanti Middle School auditorium, 6 p.m., 235 Spencer Lane, Ypsilanti, MI. Details here. And the speaker will be Ayinde Jean-Baptiste, the then-child who inspired Joe Dulin to start NAAPID!

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Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Guest Post: A Parent Reviews Her Child's M-STEP Results, and Learns...

A guest post by Naomi Zikmund-Fisher about the M-STEP results, and what they mean.

Last week, we finally received my children’s scores from the M-STEP test they took last spring. My son, a fourth grader at the time (now 5th) and my daughter, a high school Junior (now senior) both took the test. For more on that decision, you can read here.

In the interest of maintaining some of their privacy, I’m not going to share how my kids did on the test. More to the point, it probably doesn’t matter how they did on the test, as their performance on this first round appears to be being largely discarded.

As a former teacher and administrator, I probably know more about how to read a score report than most parents. Theoretically, I should be able to get all there is to get out of these scores. So, here’s what I learned from looking at my children’s score reports:

  1. Last spring, my children were doing about as well in their academic progress as their teachers said they were. There were no real surprises. You could have looked at their report cards and gotten the same information that M-STEP gives you.

  1. That information is wildly out of date. They took this test in a window from March to May. I got the scores in January. Whatever new information may have been useful in the scores is no longer pertinent.

  1. The science and social studies tests measure curriculum alignment more than anything else. They are broken out by different smaller subjects (e.g. physical science, life science or economics, geography). You can see that in this sample of a child’s 4th grade science scores.

Sample M-Step information provided to parents, in this case for the science test.

When they say a child is proficient, what does that mean?

My children did best in areas that they had studied recently and worst in those from previous years. In other words, this test measured what classes they were taking, not anything about my children or about whether their teachers were teaching well.

  1. The target area for “proficient” is, in some cases, shockingly small. Scores are reported graphically (among other ways) on a continuum of four ranges. Proficient is the second to the top and is the smallest area, sometimes by quite a bit.

But shouldn’t “just fine” be a fairly broad range of kids? When did we stop recognizing that “normal” isn’t a single point, it’s a spectrum?

Sample of information provided to parents. Note that the grey "margin of error" overlaps both the "partially proficient" and advanced categories, meaning that a child who scores in the yellow/gray overlap as "partially proficient" might actually be "proficient" on another day. Note also that the green ball of "proficient" is a much smaller area than the bars for not proficient, partially proficient, or advanced.

This picture shows the score graphic for the same student whose subject scores were above. This child is supposedly proficient in 4th grade science [the score is right in the middle of the green bubble]. As you can see, this is quite a feat, since the “Proficient” range is about 5.5% of the total.

What’s more, while it’s great that the score report acknowledges a “margin of error” around the score, that margin is substantially larger than the target itself. This means that three kids who score as “partially proficient,” “proficient,” and “advanced” might all know exactly the same amount of science. We sing the praises of one (and the wonderful teacher who taught her) while wringing our hands about another (and the mediocre educator she had) when there is truly no difference at all.

In the end, what I realize once again is that this data is designed to measure districts and schools much more than to give us any useful information about individual children. Even without the huge delay in score reporting, the amount of useful information, that you can’t find more easily somewhere else, about a single child is minimal.

It’s reasonable to say that the measure of a school or a district is how well its children are prepared for the next phase of life. The problem is, we’re substituting this test for the real answer to that question. We’re asking our kids to take hours upon hours of tests – time they could spend actually learning something – in service of measuring their school system.

If we already know how they’re going to do on the tests, then we already know what the answer we’re going to get will be. And if we don’t already know how they’re going to do on the tests, it’s either a really bad test or a school so out of touch with students that it should be obvious in multiple other ways.

I can say unequivocally, however, as an educator and as a parent, that the M-STEP given last spring was just plain a waste of my children’s time.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Thinking About Flint: No Words, A Guest Post

I've been thinking about the Flint water situation for a while. Actually I wrote about the importance of investigative journalism and its relationship to Flint back in October of 2015 . (Congratulations to Curt Guyette for winning the Michigan Press Association award of Journalist of the Year.)

Other than that I have not been sure what to say (that hasn't been said already). Luckily  my friend Beverly Davidson wrote a very powerful piece on her blog, and she has agreed to let me cross-post it. Thank you!

[If you want to make a donation, Dr. Mona Hana-Attisha is suggesting the Community Foundation of Greater Flint.  Bev volunteered with Crossing Water.]

No Words, by Beverly Davidson

Crossposted from

Yesterday two of my friends and I had the honor of volunteering in Flint, MI for a small NGO called Crossing Water.   This is a volunteer organization started by some members of the National Association of Social Workers-MI chapter.  The goal of this group is to create connections among community groups in Flint to help serve impoverished communities who are deeply affected by the current water crisis.  What I saw was heart-breaking beyond words.  And it was only one day there.  I am trying to imagine living this way and I can’t. 
We came to a low-income housing complex run by the Flint Housing Commission.  I saw a case of water on people’s doorsteps that had been delivered earlier in the day by volunteers.  There was no governmental system in the complex to test water, distribute water, or provide lead-testing to the children.  This is a complex managed essentially by HUD.  Where are the government leaders?
We knocked on one door to deliver filters and water.  A young man answered who was happy to see us.  “Do you have a filter?” He does, but it did not fit, so we gave him another one which would work in his unit.  I asked if he had had his water tested, and he was not sure.  He showed me the testing bottle he had from his aunt’s house, which was on the floor of his car, but he could not find the paperwork to go with it (which is used for tracking and data analysis).  I explained how he had to get his water tested, making sure he understood to use unfiltered water that had been in the tap for at least 6 hours.  He had no idea he had to do this, as he had not heard that filtered water was not safe to drink either.  Children under six live with him, and they cannot drink even the filtered water. He had no idea, no one told him, and he does not have access to the internet to get all of the updates online.  My brilliant friend had the idea that instead of the Governor hiring PR firms to spin his reputation, perhaps he should hire PR firms to get a coordinated message out on safety and testing to ALL the people of Flint.
The next house four young children answered the door gleefully, as if they knew we were delivering water to them.    The little girl joyfully showed us her newly painted nails as we talked to her young auntie who was caring for them while their mom was at work.  We explained to the aunt about how to get her water tested, and she had no idea of the process.  She at least had a filter and we made sure she knew the kids could only drink the bottled water.  Then, the young boy strongly and sternly put out his arms for the case of water.  I said, “It’s pretty heavy, kiddo,” but he persisted with “I can do it!” I gave him the case and he proudly held it and brought it into the apartment.  All I could think about was that this little boy should not have to be so strong and sturdy that his little arms have to carry a case of water for his family, he should be holding out his arms to catch a ball or grab a swing.  But he was eager and ready for water.  Water he should be getting out of his tap, not out of a bottle.
Knock. knock.  A young mom answers her door and we ask if she needs water or a filter. She needed both, and I asked if there were any urgent medical issues.  She said her baby had a bad skin rash after a bath the other day, “but it’s ok, it went away today.”  NO, NO, NO, it’s not ok.  In the state of Michigan in 2016, a mother should be able to joyfully give her baby a bath and trust that her baby will be safe from skin rashes.  The saddest part is that this young mom just accepted this without much anger or question.  She has learned to live in a world that has treated her less than for so long that she readily accepts that her home is giving her baby skin rashes.
A few doors down, a young man answers the door for his elderly male relative who is homebound.   We give him some jugs of water and ask if they have a filter.  “yea, someone came by one day and gave us one.”  Did you know that you have to change your filter regularly, like every 2 months?  He yells to his relative and asks about the filter.  “no, we didn’t know that, ya got any?”  So we gave him a replacement cartridge.  Did anyone tell you to test your water? “Nah, how do you do that?”   We give him a test kit, the instructions, and realized that the water testing being done is abysmal.
A woman runs out to our car and asks if she can have some water because her daughter is pregnant.  Her apartment is not on our targeted list but of course we will give her water.   “Do I need to sign something for the water?”  My friend reassures her “No, no, you do not need to sign anything, we are not checking anything, we just want you to have water.”  She knows that her pregnant daughter cannot drink even filtered water, but she does not know how to get her unit tested.  We give her a test kit.  “We need to get our blood tested, do you know where we can go?”  I look up test sites on my Iphone, give her some information and tell her to take care of herself and her daughter.  She thanks us profusely, and we get in our car and scream.  How can this be happening?
I ask another woman if anyone from the Housing Commission has been out here.  “Nah, but we got some water delivered once by a guy in a big Budget truck.”  Good God, this crisis has been going on for 2 years and no one from Housing & Urban Development (HUD) or the Housing Commission has been out here to educate its residents or test the water?
Later in the afternoon we go further into the East side of Flint.  The dilapidated homes are surrounded by barren lots, old abandoned buildings, a trailer park with gutted trailers tagged with graffiti all next to a junk yard and old factory.  One house we are trying to reach has a disabled adult who is homebound.  His dog is outside and greets us, doing his duty and barking and protecting his home.  We respect him, but then I see a person looking out the window.  We hold up some water, but no one comes out.  I wonder, would I come out and get water and a filter from a complete stranger?  Would I want to show my vulnerability and inability to perhaps walk or move, and come face to face with a stranger who reminds me daily that I cannot drink water from my own home? No, I do not think I would.  We understand this, we understand that this dog is not menacing, but protecting its owner, and we gently leave the cases of water and filter on the driveway.  I hope they understand we do not judge, we do not want to cause shame.  We just want them to be safe.
My friend knocks on the next door, and an elderly woman doesn’t get up but let’s her peek in.   “We are here with Crossing Water to deliver water to you.”  She does not want us to come in and really does not want us to ask any questions.  We know she is homebound, is isolated, and has cancer from the canvassing done earlier, which is why we are there.  We want to make sure she is medically ok, has a filter and understands the risks.  My friend tells her we have 3 cases of water for her.  “I only want 2.” No, really, we have three for you.  “I only want 2.”  Respectfully, we leave two cases for her.  And I know my friend will never be able to get this woman’s face out of her mind.   What will happen to her?  2 cases of water does not last long.
Across the street we go and knock, knock, knock.  A young mother of four races out to greet us in her driveway.  “Oh, my god, I’m so glad to see you guys, I just had a baby 3 weeks ago and I’ve been drinking water from the tap my whole pregnancy.  I don’t have a car because someone stole the ignition out of it.  I have some water for the formula but I have to wash his bottles with the tap water.”  We give her a filter, a test kit, and extra jugs, breaking the rules of how much water we can deliver to each house.  My heart breaks.  I work with infants, I know the effects of neurotoxins during pregnancy.  This baby likely has had massive lead exposure that is yet to be discovered.  This mom may have known the risks but HAD NO CHOICE but to use her only source of water for the last 9 months.  Her older daughter is watching us from the window.  She looks sad.  But is she mirroring my face?
The city was eerily quiet, with a myriad of In and Out marts, gas stations, bars, vacant lots, run-down houses, and churches surrounding the East side.   I wondered where all the water trucks were, where the National Guard were, where are all the governmental leaders?  This city has its entire water distribution destroyed, and all we could see were private volunteers at churches and businesses handing out cases of bottled water to people through a make-shift assembly line.   We can go to the Middle East, bomb and destroy entire cities, rebuild these cities, and we can’t fix this?  Where are the temporary water systems that our government could set up?  Where are the military personnel and trucks who could deliver cases of water and filters to people who have no resources nor transportation?  Folks are supposed to go to a local fire station, pick up a filter, a test kit, some water, and then return the test kit to the fire station for testing?  That’s the plan?  Seriously?  In 2016, that’s the plan?
I thought we’d see a local Command Central in an abandoned building, a church, or a school where there was a base of operations for water testing, water distribution, and lead testing.  I thought we’d see National Guard going door-to-door collecting water samples from each home so that accurate testing and mapping of the city could be done in an organized and coordinated manner.  I thought we’d see Red Cross tents throughout the poorest parts of the city.  What I did see were local groups and amazing volunteers of people from churches, social service groups, and unions meeting people in their homes so they could at least have bottled water and filters.  What I did see was good people trying to help, perhaps restoring some kernels of hope for people who have been beaten down.  More importantly, what I did see were poor people who, instead of being outraged at the indignity and destruction their government has created for them, have been so disenfranchised and are so impoverished that they have been conditioned to believe they are not worthy of even a basic human right such as clean water.
Not only does the infrastructure need to change, but so does an entire belief system on how we treat the poor.
In the words of Hubert Humphrey, “The moral test of a government is how it treats those who are at the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the aged; and those who are in the shadow of life, the sick and the needy, and the handicapped.”
In this city, in this state, our government has failed this test immeasurably.
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